Open data: gold mine or gold bust?

  
Disclaimer: all opinions in this column reflect the views of their authors’, not of EurActiv.com PLC.

Despite Neelie Kroes' ambitious declarations for a new open data strategy at the regional level, authorities are still struggling to become familiar with that process and the strategy still faces fierce resistance, writes Julia Glidden from 21c Consultancy.

Dr. Julia Glidden is the managing director of UK-based 21c Consultancy. She is also an orientation committee member of Fondation EurActiv PoliTech.

"On 12 December 2011, European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes launched a European Open Data Strategy, boldly claiming that the European Commission would lead member states by example in a pioneering effort to ‘turn government data into gold.’ Kroes’ announcement – along with her argument that opening data could provide a €40-billion boost to the EU's economy each year - was justifiably welcomed by open data advocates as the clearest example yet that the Open Data movement is here to stay. 

Kroes’ impressive EU initiative is the latest in the seemingly inexorable advance of the move to make government data more transparent and accessible to us – the taxpayers – who, as Kroes rightly argues, ‘have already paid for this information.’ From the Obama administration’s 2008 Open Government Initiative - which promised to herald greater ‘transparency, participation and collaboration’ - to arguably even more extensive efforts by EU member states such as the United Kingdom and France, the public embrace of open data is undeniable.

Yet for all the outward commitment and hype, scratch beneath the surface of open data advocacy and one still finds a lurking band of ‘resistors’ armed with a seemingly unending array of reasons why ‘their organisation is special,’ ‘their data can’t possibly be open,’ ‘their constituents have special needs’. Take, for example, the leader of one national rail service who – incredible as it may sound – once openly argued that transport timetables could not possibly be made open because ‘rail travellers might miss their trains!’

If such statements are still being made at the national level, one shudders to think about the behind the scenes - let alone public - discussions that are currently taking place at the local level – where open data is only just now coming onto the radar. For sure, across Europe one can find ‘smart’ cities like Ghent pro-actively embracing open data as a natural means to kick-start local innovation and growth (see for example the use of geospatial data for the Ghent Festival). For every Ghent, however, one can find an infinitely greater number of smaller local authorities that are struggling not just to keep abreast of recent national and EU directives but also to understand where and indeed how to even begin to open data in a legally compliant and accessible manner.

This disconnect between the EU and national level and the local one presents a particular challenge for those like Neelie Kroes who hope that the open data movement will indeed ‘turn government data into gold’ – especially if by gold we mean more cost-efficient and effective public services as well as new wealth generation. The American politician Tip O’Neill once famously quipped that ‘all politics is local.’  Nowhere is this arguably truer than in the opportunity that open data presents to unleash the innovative potential of European citizens to collaborate with government in the co-creation and co-design of the types of modern, 21st-century public services that people want and need. 

For all the talk of boarderless worlds and shrinking distances, most of us still live our lives locally, care about what happens most in our own backyard and are more likely to know better than anyone else about what our own neighbourhoods and communities need. Unfortunately, the enormous opportunity that open data - combined with ever more accessible and easy to use new social media tools - has to enable us to help drive this change will be five, perhaps even 10 years in the making (hardly any time at all for our army of ‘open data resistors’ but a virtual lifetime for the rest of us) unless the same level of energy, thought and commitment that is going in to open data at the EU and national level is applied locally.

Fortunately, alongside the growing number of supra-national EU Open Data initiatives (see for example: www.engage-project.eu), we now finally have a pan-European project devoted specifically to driving local level innovation and change. Launched on 1 February 2012, Citadel on the Move is co-funded by the European Commission Information Communication Technologies Policy Support Programme (ICT-PSP) for Smart Cities. The project is designed to respond to the unprecedented chance that the use of open data and social media presents to unleash the heretofore untapped potential of citizens to build the type of smart, ‘city-level’ services they want and need.

Beyond merely opening data for local-level use, Citadel on the Move aims to combine Open Data and Mobile Application tools to create new public services that can be used across Europe. Ultimately, Citadel on the Move seeks to advance nothing less than digital materialisation of European integration through the creation of ‘smart’ mobile Services that can be shared and used anywhere. The ambitions underpinning Citadel on the Move are (in line with its predecessor – the Citadel Statement – which aimed to pressure EU and National decisionmakers to help ‘make the Malmo Ministerial Declaration real at the local level) broad. If achieved, however, Citadel on the Move should provide the strongest proof yet that Open Data represents much, much more than an over-hyped bust."

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